Little over three weeks since being defaulted at the US Open, Novak Djokovic has returned to his winning ways with victory at the Italian Open in Rome.
Djokovic defeated Diego Schwartzman 7-5, 6-3 in a tight contest on clay in the build-up to the French Open.
The victory means Djokovic now has a record 36 Masters 1000 titles and remains unbeaten in 2020 barring his early US Open exit this month when he struck a line judge with a ball.
In the women’s competition, Simona Halep won her first Italian Open title as Karolina Pliskova was forced to withdraw in the second set due to a thigh injury.
Halep, who skipped the US Open amid coronavirus concerns, had twice finished runner-up in Rome. She took the first set 6-0 in Monday’s final and was leading the second 2-1 when Pliskova called time on the match.
Djokovic wins close match
Two early breaks saw Schwartzman mount a 3-0 lead in the first set on Monday, but Djokovic rallied and took the next four games in a row.
The pair then traded service games until Djokovic, leading 6-5, broke Schwartzman to take a first set that lasted an hour and 12 minutes.
Schwartzman, who was playing his first Masters 1000 final having beaten clay court supremo Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, broke Djokovic at the start of the second set, only for the world No. 1 to immediately break back.
With the set evenly poised at 4-3, a sweetly struck backhand saw Djokovic capitalize on the first of three break points on the Argentine’s serve and move within one game of the title.
He duly served out the next game to seal the victory, going one Masters 1000 win clear of Nadal at the top of the all-time list.
Djokovic has now won five titles in Rome and he will head to Roland Garros looking for his second victory at the French Open and first since 2016.
“It was a great week, a very challenging week,” the Serb said in his on-court interview.
“I don’t think I played my best tennis throughout the entire week but I think I found my best tennis when I needed it the most in the decisive moments today, yesterday, practically every match.
“That makes me very satisfied and proud that I managed to find that fifth gear when it was most needed.”
Halep steps up French Open preparation
Pliskova, who wore strapping on her left thigh, was off the pace in the women’s final as Halep raced through the first set in just 20 minutes.
Former world No. 1 Plisokva later said she had an eye on the French Open as she withdrew due to injury for the first time in her career.
“I hope to be ready for Roland Garros,” she said.
“I have to see a doctor to make sure it’s not too severe of an injury. I think it’s from playing so many tough matches in a row. Even if they weren’t all three-set matches, they were still on clay, which is quite a fast switch from hard courts.
“The sliding and running in the last two matches, I began to feel it against (Elise) Mertens and it grew with every day.”
As for Halep, she can approach the French Open with confidence having not lost a match since the Australian Open semifinals in January.
“I feel happy that I will have a chance to play another grand slam this year,” she told reporters.
“I’m not going to let myself be bothered by the weather or something like this. I just try to be happy, to take the positives from this tournament and to go there (Paris) smiling.”